Skip to content

At The Clerkenwell Sessions House

May 9, 2018
by the gentle author

Anyone who knows Clerkenwell knows the old sessions house which dominates the western side of the green, yet few have ever been inside. Built around 1780, it is mostly remembered as the location of Charles Dickens’ early employment as a cub reporter, reporting on court cases. Subsequently, he wove the location into his novels and this where Oliver Twist was tried after being caught stealing a pocket watch on Clerkenwell Green.

Joseph Merceron, the corrupt magistrate and gangster, known as the Boss of Bethnal Green once held court here, sentencing those who displeased him to Cold Bath Sq prison, a mile to the north.

Yet the sessions house was closed for judicial use nearly a century ago and has been the headquarters of a scalemaker and a masonic hall, permitting only few visitors and thus – all this time – it has stood in Clerkenwell as an enigma that could not be explored. For at least thirty years, I have walked past and wondered about what might lie inside before I entered through the front door last week to encounter its spectacular interior, with a dome modelled after the Pantheon, reborn in its full glory following a comprehensive four-year renovation.

At the centre of the sessions house is a magnificent hall containing a staircase ascending to the first floor with a vast opalescent glass screen and a gallery that enfolds the space, beneath the dome towering overhead. The building is oriented upon an east-west axis and you discover yourself inside a huge light box, with rays of sunlight refracting, bouncing and playing upon all the surfaces. Removal of twentieth and late nineteenth century architectural interventions have reinstated the austere classicism of this interior with thrilling results.

From here, I set out to explore the side rooms by means of the myriad hidden staircases that lead to the upper and lower floors. Whereas the central hall has been repainted in its original stone and old-white tones, the secondary spaces retain the attractive patina of ages prior to any redecoration that future tenants may enact. Despite the logic of the central hall, these staircases create the feeling of a warren, linking unexpected spaces – so that you may equally discover yourself in the magistrates dining room or the holding cells. While the atmosphere of institutionalised violence enacted in the name of the judiciary by Joseph Merceron and others has been dispelled from the public spaces, it is inescapable in the basement where the arrangement of cells is apparent and the nature of confinement is palpable. It will be a sobering thought for the customers of the bars and wine vaults that are planned for these spaces.

Quite soon, the Clerkenwell Sessions House will be filled with people again and restored to life as a place for meetings and transactions both business and social. Yet at this moment, as the restoration draws to completion and the grand rooms sit empty, it enjoys a short-lived adjournment inhabited only by the ghosts of former days.

The dome modelled after the Pantheon

The opalescent screen

Staircase for magistrates

Staircase for service

Staircase for prisoners ascending to the dock

Passageway between the former cells in the basement

The basement

Spire of St James Clerkenwell and the dome of the Session House

Looking west along Clerkenwell Rd

Looking north up Farringdon Lane

The door onto Clerkenwell Rd

The sessions house drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson, 1806

Visit THE OLD SESSIONS HOUSE on Clerkenwell Green

You may also like to take a look at

In Old Clerkenwell

9 Responses leave one →
  1. May 9, 2018

    The house has been very well restored. I noted the contrasts between the staircases for magistrates, service, and prisoners! Valerie

  2. Peter Huddart permalink
    May 9, 2018

    What an amazing building.
    Certainly an inspired way to keep a wonderful structure alive.
    My only thought is that it will be a centre of affluence and privilege. The wider community who do not resort to the clubs, restaurants, offices or boutique shops will have little opportunity to enjoy the location.
    Perhaps echoing its days as a Courthouse, a looming presence in the locality, but somewhere set aside from daily life.
    The master stroke for developers would be to find a way to anchor the building firmly in the roots of the whole community, not just in the pockets of the fortunate few
    What a pleasure to read though, the photographs, as always, a treat to view.

  3. May 9, 2018

    What a beauty. And built with such care and elegance. I am so pleased that it has been restored and hope it is licensed for marriages. What a joy it would be to be married in all that light. Shows what can be done when the driving force isn’t just corporate ambition.

  4. Patricia Hamzahee permalink
    May 9, 2018

    Once again you have uncovered a hidden jewel in tbe East End of London. I am sorry not to have known about the magnificent Session House before. Thank you for another magical story. Can you let us know what it will be after the renovation is compete? Will it be a commercial property or a community asset?

  5. May 9, 2018

    Wow! It’s really beautiful. I hope they keep it light and minimally furnished. Thank you for visiting on our behalf.

  6. May 9, 2018

    What really beautiful photos. I wonder if the service staircase was a minor nod to the Ionic pillars!

  7. Saba permalink
    May 9, 2018

    I would love to know about the iron workers and the glass houses that created this remarkable structure during the eighteenth century. I cannot envision how such wide expanses of glass were created, given the technology of the time.

  8. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    May 9, 2018

    What a treasure, to be able to glimpse inside. Thank you for sharing these photographs!

  9. gkbowood permalink
    May 9, 2018

    Hope you are able to do a follow up after renos are complete! This was a lovely excursion into the past-thanks to you.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS